YANGON—The Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), an ethnic armed group which broke away from the Karen National Union (KNU) in 1994, is currently a stakeholder and signatory of Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Originally known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, following further splinters in the group in 2010, the group officially changed its name swapping “Buddhist” with “Benevolent” in 2015.
The DKBA has more than 10 battalions with troops based in Myawaddy and Kawkareik townships and the area of Three Pagodas Pass in Karen State, Kyain Seikgyi and Kyaikto in Mon State.
The DKBA is currently lead by Commander-in-Chief Gen. Saw Mo Shay, who took up the post three years ago after the death of the late Gen. Saw La Bwe. He has been part of the Karen revolutionary movement since 1987, and was a KNU soldier until 2003.
During events organized to commemorate the 24th anniversary of the formation of the DKBA, Gen. Saw Mo Shay said that negotiations are the only means of solving Myanmar’s long-running civil wars as the people of Myanmar have many differing perspectives.
The DKBA, along with the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC) went under the political leadership of the KNU after signing the NCA in October 2015. After the KNU’s decision to step back from formal peace negotiations in November, these two smaller groups said they would move forward with the talks with or without the KNU.
In mid-December, The Irrawaddy’s reporter Nyein Nyein spoke to Gen. Saw Mo Shay at the DKBA headquarters in Myawaddy about his views on the peace process and the DKBA’s efforts in the development of their areas.
Thinking about the past 24 years of the DKBA, what are the changes the group needs to make now?
[The DKBA’s split from the Karen National Union] was based on a religious dispute, but it has changed and we are now a democratic movement. Following the split, we are able to connect better with people in the communities.
In 2010, while under the command of the [late] Gen. Saw La Bwe, we refused the government’s order to become border guard force. He led us on the principle that we should move forward based on our national interests rather than religious beliefs because if we continued putting our faith first, there would be more splits. We, Karen, believe in different faiths. Thus we took the [new] name.
With further splits from the DKBA prompted by your taking part in negotiations with the government, how do the group’s actions impact the DKBA?
As we shifted our principles from faith-based to the interest of our nationality, we changed the name of our organization [from Democratic Karen Buddhist Army to Democratic Karen Benevolent Army] but the initials are the same so it confused people. When there was fighting, people thought it was between the government forces and us so they questioned us on why we were fighting despite signing the NCA.
Despite the acronyms of the two groups being the same, we are not related to [the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army]. People are not able to distinguish between us. We haven’t had any clashes with the KNU after changing the name too (as there were reports of clashes between the DKBA splinter group and KNU over the last couple of years).
Since the DKBA is under the political leadership of the KNU, what are your expectations for 2019 given the KNU’s temporary postponement of formal peace negotiations which has brought the talks to a halt?
The DKBA and the KNU/KNLA-PC haven’t had political leaders who can take up political affairs since we signed the NCA, so we followed the KNU leadership. We don’t think the KNU has [permanently] stopped those talks, and they also said they haven’t. The main problem is that the [KNU] was not able to share the results of their discussion with the people on the ground. They have halted the talks in order to bridge the information gap on the negotiation process.
Either way, we can only move forward when we are at opposition. When things are smooth, it does not get us anywhere. So the current postponement is a good move. We know that every successful peace process faces such rough times in every country that goes through peace negotiations. A simultaneous ceasefire [with the Myanmar military and all ethnic armed groups] may not work for the whole country; it would have to go group by group because each group’s situation is different. If we all agree to a ceasefire, it would be excellent. Therefore, this delay is a good sign, because nobody wants to violate the NCA, which has national and international acknowledgement.
Has your policy to follow the KNU’s political leadership changed?
The KNU statement [on the postponement of formal talks] is their own decision. They didn’t consult with us, so if there are further talks [initiated by the government], we will go ahead.
How do you spread awareness about the NCA within your group?
We distribute small booklets on the NCA to our officers and we hold training sessions and workshops on the NCA and its principles, ethics and dos and don’ts. We hold these trainings together with the Chin National Front. We also held a workshop related to the [Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee] and distributed booklets containing the code of conduct between troops and the ethics of dealing with the public.
This area, Karen State, is home to people of many different religions. How do you make sure people know your organization is not faith-based?
We do not have that kind of specific message. During our reform, we changed our organization’s name, insignias and symbols. We treat different religions equally: I think people understand that although we don’t have any official policies on it.
Regarding the illicit drugs trade, because the news often doesn’t distinguish which group is involved, what role does the DKBA play in it?
We do take part in anti-narcotics activities. Of the many non-state armed groups in Karen State—the KNU, the KNU/KNLA-PC, the DKBA and the DKBA-turned-BGF—we are the most cooperative organization with the government in their fight against illegal drugs. Since we signed the bilateral ceasefire with the Karen State government in 2011 we have even helped to uncover some of the drugs cases and assisted [the government] in catching drug-dealers.
We have two anti-drugs programs in our areas. We raise awareness among the community members that drugs are a danger to them. We need our children to be freed from drugs and they need to grow up with healthy brains so that we can have more educated people. We do public awareness-raising together with the township general administrative department as well as with healthcare providers.
We also create spaces for the young people to play sports. Previously, we had very few sports activities but now we have sports competitions and youth festivals. We prioritize physical development and have formed sports associations. When [young people] become interested in sport, they can develop physically and mentally. We also find job opportunities for them as unemployment can interrupt their minds [and lead them to become interested in dealing drug].
The other activity is punishments for drug users. If members [of the DKBA are suspected of] using drugs, they have to go through a drugs test. If they fail the test twice, they are detained and sent to a rehabilitation program. If they commit more offenses, we refer them to the police in accordance with the law as we don’t have the authority to take legal action.
We used to hear that the DKBA collected money from people. Does that continue today?
We do not directly control taxation. There are some basic rules of the area though. We stand on our own feet in this area, but we would sometimes ask some people for help. It is not formal taxation. Since 2015 we only have security checkpoints which do not collect money.
In most of the ethnic areas, the use of ethnic language is encouraged. At the DKBA ceremony, however, most of the programs were conducted in Burmese. What do you do to maintain the mother tongue?
We have an ethnic literature association and literature is taught at summer [courses]. We have one Karen language teacher at each school. We used Burmese language for this commemoration as we are a democratic force and we have troops of many ethnicities. Also, people in this area have different ethnic backgrounds. We Karen have many sub-tribes and different dialects, so we use Burmese as a common language. In that way, everyone from near and far can understand what the DKBA is.